THE traveller passing through the Dublin suburb of Clonskeagh, observing the great white steam clouds rising from the Jefferson Smurfit paper mill, is witness to a process which began on the banks of the river Dodder more than 200 years ago.

Gunpowder, ritual decapitation and paper making all came out of China in the first millennium after Christ. The paper making process percolated slowly along the famous Golden Road and reached Samarkand and Baghdad early in the next millennium.

Paper making was developed in China in 105 AD. It spread through the Middle East and into Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. It finally reached Britain at around 1590 and was well established by the end of Elizabethan times.

Warrant for a patent

No Irish paper mills were established until the political turmoil of the 17th century ended. In 1690, a Nicholas Duplin requested assistance from the Privy Council, which granted him a warrant for a patent for the "sole making of all types of white writing and printing paper in Ireland".

His "Irish Company of White Papers" was, apparently, an ambitious undertaking. Skilled paper makers were brought from the Netherlands and the staff boasted a mould maker, a secretary, a storekeeper, etc, and would seem to have been situated on the Dodder in Milltown.

Paper was made by immersing linen rags in a circular vat where they were beaten or ground into a watery pulp, hence the expression that somebody "was beaten to a pulp".

The management of the Irish White Paper Company later passed to Col John Perry, who petitioned the Irish Parliament in 1697 for an import duty on foreign paper. The petition failed, but the health of the paper industry later fluctuated depending on the attitude of parliament in the giving of grants and also of the Dublin Society in underwriting the manufacture of paper.

Due to competition from the well established paper mills in England and the Continent, many Irish mills failed.

In 1731 Thomas Slater - better known as a publisher - set up his own paper making mill. His was evidently a most progressive paper maker and supplied the principal Irish printers of the period. It was claimed that Slater's paper was far better than any French product.

In 1737, Slater petitioned parliament to establish a new mill "after the best such manner". He claimed he was the only manufacturer of writing paper, in Ireland at the time. Parliament granted him a premium of £500 (£1,500,000 in present day values) and some 16 years later gave him a further grant of £350. Slater's mills were at Templeogue and were destroyed by fire in 1775.

Precedent created

In its efforts to encourage the paper industry, the Royal Dublin Society in 1746 created a precedent in the history of paper making by offering premiums for the collections of rags. As a result, £5,000 worth of rags were gathered weekly in the city and county to supply the main paper mills near Dublin.

The greatest number of rags were sold to the above mentioned Thomas Slater; Robert Randle of Newbridge and Michael McDaniel of Tallaght were also major recipients.

As the industrial revolution progressed, all sorts of exotic experimentation was entered into by entrepreneurs of various kinds. In 1811, a Mr Maddock of Cork brought before the society specimens of paper made by him from vegetables and potato stalks which were almost waterproof.

We have no records on how his endeavours progressed, but doubtlessly had he done well, we would have a "Vegetarian Book Society" in existence at this stage, based on the principle" read now, eat later".

With increasing literacy, the demand for both book and writing paper was increasing rapidly. As a result, paper mills became a growth industry and sprang up everywhere, especially near the larger cities, which could supply the rags and which had streams running into them to supply power for the water wheels and water for the pulping process.

The Camac river supported five mills. Mills in or near Dublin included those at Newbridge, Glasnevin, Chapelizod, Goldenbridge, Inchicore, Clondalkin, Saggart, Rathfarnham, Killeens, Templeogue, Donnybrook, Ballsbridge, Kilternan, etc.

There were 11 paper mills at the close of the 18th century along the Glanmire and Glashaboy Rivers - streams which run along the winding valley of the old approach road to Cork before the modern bypass was built. In Co Cork there were two paper mills at Bandon and one at Blarney.

It is interesting to note that the largest of the Cork mills were owned by a Sullivan, who acquired great wealth and employed over 2,000 people, and was declared a bankrupt in the 1840s, probably a case of "from papermaking rags to untold riches back to rags again".

End to handmade paper

In 1807, the Fourdinier brothers from London installed a new machine at Sullivan's Dripsey mill. It was the advent of such machines which ultimately put an end to handmade paper. In 1838 there were 60 paper mills in production, but by 1852 this had dropped to 28.

Interestingly enough however, the quantity of paper produced in the period had doubled. This shows the effect of the mechanically produced paper over older handmade paper. However, paper making machinery was vastly expensive and had to be constantly improved on, with the result that the Irish paper makers just could not meet the competition of the UK. By 1907, only six Irish paper mills were working, employing a mere 600 people.

The only remaining facility making a paper like product which is used in cardboard manufacture is the Jefferson Smurfit mill at Clonskeagh, Dublin.

It is interesting to note the first paper mill in Ireland was on the Dodder River in Milltown, and the last paperboard mill (Smurfit's) is on the same river.